I Can’t Breathe: George Floyd At The Conjunction Of Racial And Environmental Injustice

I Can’t Breathe: George Floyd At The Conjunction Of Racial And Environmental Injustice June 18, 2020

ksh2000: I Can’t Breathe / pexels

“I can’t breathe.”

George Floyd, in saying these words, spoke for all of us.

“I can’t breathe.”

This is the experience of so many minorities in the United States.

“I can’t breathe.” That is, “I am oppressed. I am suffering. I am being cast aside. I am suffocating in oppression. I am dying.”

We must recognize that these words speak of the fate of all of us if things do not change soon. We all will find out “I can’t breathe,” if the systematic evil and oppression which underlies racism continues to have power and control over all the earth.

“I can’t breathe,” will be what we all feel as the earth is corrupted and destroyed, with its natural resources and animal life is deplete. “I can’t breathe” is what we will all feel when climate change and environmental destruction reaches its peak impact.

“I can’t breathe.” Therese are prophetic words, which is why the cry of George Floyd resounded with so many of us who care for and seek justice in the world. It is the cry which was heard all around the world because it is the cry of the world, of the people of the world, which so many of us already feel, and which many of us know will be felt even more in the days and months and years to come unless the systematic evil and oppression which dominates the world is overturned.

“I can’t breathe.” We must note these words are first and foremost the words of the African American community. While they speak for all of us, and warn us all of what is to come, unless the system itself is changed, we must not ignore the reason why they come out of the African American community. “I cannot breathe” is their experience. So many of us have, in our privilege, experienced far less of the domination and suppression than they have experienced. We must recognize that they are the first among us to experience it, and so, they must also be given preference when restitution is made if and when we transform the system.

“I cannot breathe.” The cries of the oppressed grow in strength and more and more people realize those words are their words, those words are the warning of what is to come because it is expresses what so many of us already experience today. More and more people will feel that they cannot breathe as those in power continue to take what they can from those who have less power, and this is why many who previously were not interested in social justice and transforming the system are now interested in systematic injustice. It has become personal. But as late comers to the problem, they must listen to those who have experienced it all their lives, or worse, those peoples who have experienced it for generations, and follow their lead, instead of trying to take the lead themselves, because, otherwise, they risk changing the system of oppression with new people in power instead of dismantling the system once and for all.

Racial justice and environmental justice go hand in hand. Racial abuse destroys lives, just as environmental abuse destroys lives. And, those who suffer at the hands of racial exploitation and abuse are also those most likely to be the most adversely affected by environmental exploitation and abuse. “I cannot breathe” not only connects the two together, but shows how the horrors of racial injustice is only being exponentially made worse as a result of environmental injustice.  Thus, as racial injustice often causes those abused and exploited to be poor, the words of Pope Francis in Laudato si’ must be recognized as having implications in relation to racial justice:

Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. [1]

We can see the truth of us, not only in the destruction wrought in Flint, Michigan, where the populace cannot even drink, but also in the way the environmental impact of oil pipelines affects Native American reservations. The rights and dignity of minority groups are ignored for the sake of the plans and desires of the rich and powerful. Despite growing interest in racial and environmental justice, those in power, like President Trump, are doing all they can to ignore the plight of the oppressed and continue to destroy their environment, and with it, their lives, so they won’t breathe or drink or eat in the future. And, sadly, the Supreme Court of the United States has indicated its support for Trump, as can be seen in its recent decision allowing for an oil pipeline underneath the Appalachian Trail:

The Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of a pipeline company in a dispute about whether a new 600-mile natural gas pipeline could cross underneath the Appalachian Trail on federal land.

The 7-2 decision overturned one part of a lower court decision that had blocked construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is being jointly developed by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy.

The proposed pipeline would run from West Virginia to population centers in Virginia and North Carolina. In central Virginia, the pipeline would cross hundreds of feet underground beneath the Appalachian Trail where the trail runs through the George Washington National Forest. [2]

Here, we see the spread of environmental destruction, moving further into new lands, new places of the powerless and the poor; previously, many of these same people would not have been concerned when oil pipelines were being built under Native American lands, but now, because they helped reinforce the power of the oppressors, they find they will suffer the consequence of their own injustice. This is not to say they should, because no one should. But this shows how and why many people understand the need for environmental and racial justice only have they experience such injustice themselves. They must be shown, however, that the work for justice must be for more than themselves; they need to be shown how the system itself has been set in place, and how systematic racism and its support helped create and establish further systems of oppression. Then, they will be able to be shown that to fix the problem, systematic racism and all such systems of oppression must be dismantled together. The poor and vulnerable of society must work together, for together, they experience the suffocation of oppression. This means those who had not seen others as their brothers and sisters must finally do so, for it is only coming together, and recognizing the dignity of each other, can the system of abuse be dismantled. If not, then the system will create worse and  worse oppression, worse and worse destruction of the earth, until at last, the destruction will lead to mass extinction throughout all the earth.

The Trump Administration’s actions are the actions of those who like to dominate and control others. This is why it is not surprising that, as many are not paying attention because they are dealing with the COVID19 pandemic, it continues to dismantle protections which are needed for the protection and safety of us all, as Rebecca Leber reported:

Under the cover of the pandemic, the Trump administration has been hard at work dismantling the rules that protect public health. He has reversed standards for clean cars and mercury emissions from coal plants. He’s suspended rigorous environmental reviews required by the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act to expedite approval of highways and pipelines in 30 days. And just last week, the Environmental Protection Agency altered how it calculates the lives saved from cleaner air—a devastating change that will be used to undermine future clean air regulation.

These rollbacks do not affect everyone equally—they’re particularly devastating for people of color. And the pandemic has intensified the burden that vulnerable neighborhoods already carry. On Tuesday, in a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce committee, environmentalists and racial justice advocates detailed the compounding effects Trump’s rollbacks and pollution has on communities that have been hardest hit by COVID-19. [3]

“I can’t breathe,” now joins in with the “I can’t drink,” of Flint Michigan. Soon, we will hear “I can’t eat.” Destruction is all around us. The system of oppression, as all such systems, has greater, more direct impact on the most vulnerable among us. But it does not end with them. Soon, we will all experience, “I cannot breathe,” as the system which accepted the execution of George Floyd will accept the execution of all of us; it is willing to sacrifice us all if we do not put a stop to it. We must recognize what we have let come in place. Now is the time to dismantle it. The earth and all its creatures need us to finally be good stewards of the earth. There is still time. There is still hope. But we must recognize that as the situation is dire, so is the call to change urgent. If we don’t do what we can and should do now, soon it might be too late and the destructive forces which we have let loose will take all of us with it.

[1] Pope Francis, Laudato si’. Vatican translation. ¶25.

[2] Becky Sullivan, “Supreme Court Says Pipeline May Cross Underneath Appalachian Trail,”  NPR (6-15-2020).

[3] Rebecca Leber, “Trump Is Using the Pandemic to Undo Environmental Rules. It’s Hurting Black Americans,” Mother Jones (6-10-2020).


Stay in touch! Like A Little Bit of Nothing on Facebook.
If you liked what you read, please consider sharing it with your friends and family!

Browse Our Archives